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Bo Kaap’s history – what you need to know about Cape Town’s most Insta-famous neighborhood

Pictures of the colorful houses of Bo Kaap have filled our Instagram feeds, drawing more and more visitors to the neighborhood. But it’s important to learn about Bo Kaap history, along with its present struggles to truly understand the magic of this eclectic neighborhood.

Bo Kaap’s history – what you need to know about Cape Town’s most Insta famous neighborhood.

Cape Town’s most colorful neighborhood, Bo Kaap

Bo-Kaap is probably Cape Town’s best-known neighborhood, at least to outsiders. Bo Kaap translated from Afrikaans means, “above the Cape,” which should tell you how closely nestled to the water this unique enclave is.

The bright colors are fun and great for pictures, but neither its history nor its present is as delightful. The neighborhood was built for slaves, survived apartheid, got its color in the 90s and faces gentrification today.

The problem is, as people’s homes become a tourist attraction, how do you make sure the community benefits?

Bo Kaap history – from housing slaves to apartheid

Bo Kaap was established in the late 1700s when the occupying Dutch needed to house the slaves they were importing from Malaysia and Indonesia to work in the Western Cape. The area became known as the Malay Quarter for its residents’ origins, though many of the slaves were brought from Indonesia and other parts of Africa and the area quickly grew to include Indian and Sri Lankan convicts and slaves.

When the British took the Cape from the Dutch in 1795, they brought with them the abolition of slavery and freedom of religion. The first mosque in South Africa was built and Islam thrived in the area. The small enclave near the larger city was a respite, with mixed cultures and identities.

In 1950, under the apartheid regime, Bo Kaap was officially declared a Muslims-only area under the Group Areas Act. People of other religions and ethnicities were forced to leave.

Bo Kaap colorful houses main strip

Bo Kaap’s colorful houses

Surely when you’ve seen pictures of Bo Kaap, the first thing you noticed was the striking colors of the houses in the neighborhood, along with their distinct style. The architecture comes from a combination of Cape Dutch and Cape Georgian styles. You can read more about the details of the architecture here, on a site maintained by residents of the neighborhood.

But what most people want to know is why the neighborhood is so colorful.

Why are Bo Kaap houses colorful? Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa

And it is a neighborhood rich in diversity and history. During apartheid, Bo-Kaap was a neighborhood designated for non-whites. It was a primary residence for “Cape Malay” people, which is why the vast majority of the neighborhood to this day are Muslim. The colors on the buildings showed up as apartheid fell and residents finally became homeowners, rather than renters, and have a say in what their homes looked like. So some guess that the colors came from a celebration of home ownership and the country’s reinvention as the “Rainbow Nation.” However, they were also maintaining homes on a budget, so they had to choose from the cheapest paint.

The curator of the Bo-Kaap museum (where any visit should start) also talks about the colors as part of Muslim identity, painting in celebration of Ramadan and Eid. Neighbors would coordinate when choosing colors to make sure they didn’t clash.

Bo Kaap colorful houses painted, Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa

Bo Kaap mosques and kramats

Auwal Mosque is the first established mosque in all of South Africa and still remains in Bo Kaap. Its construction began in 1794 and finally in 1804 Muslims were allowed to practice in public. There is a total of seven mosques in the Bo Kaap area for its approximate 10,000 residents.

Kramats (Muslim shrines) are burial sites and there are several in Bo Kaap. You can find more information about kramats, and visiting them, here.

Bo Kaap gentrification and today’s struggles

Because of the neighborhood’s rich history, prime location near the Cape and rising attraction, it has become prime property. Now an area that has been home to families for generations is at great risk of losing its strong cultural heritage, and its residents.

As high-rise (and price) buildings come in, the residents who are displaced have nowhere to go. Swaths of tourists visit the neighborhood daily, but many are coming in on tours from outside of the area, so the money doesn’t stay in the community.

Rabia Parker, spokesperson for Bo-Kaap Rise, describes the problem of keeping the boom in the community in an article with News24,

“It becomes more and more difficult for the working class to share in the wealth of this city because they are always side-lined and exploited in new ways by the wealthy elite, foreign investors and a democracy that should be protecting them.”

Residents are calling for the area to be declared a heritage zone and dedicated to affordable housing and fair rentals. They are open to rejuvenation, but fight gentrification. The fight isn’t just about cost, it’s about identity.

 

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Bo Kaap Museum

Any visit to Bo Kaap should start at the Bo Kaap museum. The museum is on Wale Street and is occupying the oldest building in the neighborhood. it is run by Iziko Museums and was established as a satellite of the SA Cultural History Museum. It focuses on the social history of the area and for less than $2, it shouldn’t be missed.

Tickets are R20 for foreigners, R10 for locals. It is open Monday through Saturday, but closed on major holidays (Workers’ Day, Christmas Day, Eid-ul-Fitr, Eid-ul-Adha and January 2).

They are open to rejuvenation, but fight gentrification. The fight isn’t just about cost, it’s about identity.Click To Tweet

Visiting Bo Kaap and Bo Kaap tours

If you are going to visit Bo Kaap, choosing your tour responsibly is the best way you can make sure you are positively contributing to the neighborhood and being a mindful tourist.

If you are visiting with a tour, look for an operator FROM the neighborhood. You can find options here, including walking tours and cooking lessons. The most important thing is that you vote with your wallet and make sure your operator is a local.

Cape Town Township Visit w/ a Cooking Class with a Local Chef in The Bo-Kaap

Cultural Cape Town Tour Including Langa Township and Bo-Kaap

Contribute to locals.

When visiting Bo Kaap on your own, you can expect to find some trouble parking. You pay to park. Don’t gripe – you’re visiting their neighborhood. Allow yourself enough time to stop an eat (the cuisine is unique) to make sure your tourist dollars go directly to the community.

Be mindful of photos.

Whether you’re on a tour or on your own, remember that you are in a neighborhood, not an Instagram backdrop. Looking at people’s homes and families. Don’t take photos of people without permission, especially of children. Think of what types of photos you would (and wouldn’t) like tourists to be taking of your home.

Bo Kaap history - visiting the colorful houses of Bo Kaap

Notice the cars usually cropped out. The garbage bin. The electric wires. I didn’t want these cropped out because this is a neighborhood. Where people live. Not just a background for photos.

Be aware of holidays and visiting times.

As the area is predominantly Muslim, visiting during times of prayer or during Islamic holidays could be problematic. Consider if you’re visiting during Ramadan, where Muslims will be fasting during the day – it isn’t appropriate to walk around with a snack or looking for lunch.

Be respectful.

It all comes down to respect. Learn the history and carry yourself with respect. Consider where you park, what you wear and what you say.

The neighborhood was built for slaves, survived apartheid, got its color in the 90s and faces gentrification today.Click To Tweet

Bo Kaap history and travel resources

I am writing this article from my experiences visiting Bo Kaap and my research on the area. You might wonder why I am presenting that tourism is a problem in the area, but talk about how to visit it. Tourism can be a powerful force contributing to a community, or tearing it apart.

I think that the area is incredibly interesting and beautiful and if you visit responsibly (spending your money with local operators and carrying yourself with respect), you can positively contribute to the area. But I also think that you should be educated by the community itself, rather than a visitor.

Bo-Kaap Rise was established to fight the gentrification and cultural dilution the area is facing. They are a great resource to follow to learn more. Bokaap.co.za is a site run by current and former residents of the area. traveller24 offers a few articles about the issues of tourism and gentrification, and recommendations for how to visit respectfully and meaningfully (i.e., don’t book a big tour bus from out of the neighborhood and come in and take photos of residents).

Here are some of the sources that I consulted in preparation of this article:

Bo Kaap, Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa

What to do in Cape Town

Check out this guest post on How Dare She of the can’t-miss things to do in Cape Town.

READ  One day in Cape Town

Where to stay in Cape Town

Like any big city, Cape Town has many different accommodation options for any budget and preferences. The best neighborhoods to stay in the city are:

  • Bree Street, Long Street and Kloof Street: buzzing part of the city with many bars and restaurants, great place to stay if you’re planning to go out a lot. Once in Cape Town is ideally located and offers private rooms and dorms.
  • Camps Bay: the fanciest area of Cape Town with the most expensive hotels at the beautiful beach; The Place on the Bay is right on the water and offers apartment-style accommodation.
  • V&A Waterfront: still quite fancy and expensive but nice and safe, with many restaurants and a big shopping mall; the Greenhouse Boutique Hotel is a nice, relatively budget-friendly option close to the waterfront.
  • Tamboerskloof: here you can find places to stay in a different price range, located further from the sea but closer to Table Mountain and Lion’s Head; 91 Loop is a budget option with dorms and La Grenadine is a more comfortable option.
Once in Cape Town

The Place on the Bay

La Grenadine

Other options to stay in Cape Town:

  • Airbnb: There are plenty of nice Cape Town options on Airbnb, but it is worth your time to communicate with hosts first to understand the neighborhood you’re choosing. Save $40 on your first booking with this link.
  • Booking: There are a few hundred options on Booking; save $20 on your first booking with this link.

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Bo-Kaap is probably Cape Town’s best-known neighborhood, at least to outsiders. The bright colors are fun and great for pictures, but neither its history nor its present is as delightful.  The neighborhood was built for slaves, survived apartheid, got its color in the 90s and faces gentrification today. The problem is, as people’s homes become a tourist attraction, how do you make sure the community benefits?

Bo-Kaap is probably Cape Town’s best-known neighborhood, at least to outsiders. The bright colors are fun and great for pictures, but neither its history nor its present is as delightful.  The neighborhood was built for slaves, survived apartheid, got its color in the 90s and faces gentrification today. The problem is, as people’s homes become a tourist attraction, how do you make sure the community benefits?     Bo-Kaap is probably Cape Town’s best-known neighborhood, at least to outsiders. The bright colors are fun and great for pictures, but neither its history nor its present is as delightful.  The neighborhood was built for slaves, survived apartheid, got its color in the 90s and faces gentrification today. The problem is, as people’s homes become a tourist attraction, how do you make sure the community benefits?

Note: This post contains affiliate links and features sponsors. My opinions and advice remain my own. For more information on affiliates and sponsors of How Dare She, click here.

Founder of How Dare She, Jessica is on a mission to visit every country in the world, and bring you along with through photos, video and stories. 6 continents and 104 countries in. She has a BA in journalism and Master's in innovation and change, but her real skill is plugging in a USB in 2 or less tries (most of the time). She believes daring isn't about being fearless, but choosing to opt in, in spite of fear. She dares to see, taste, experience and meet the world as she goes.

6 thoughts on “Bo Kaap’s history – what you need to know about Cape Town’s most Insta-famous neighborhood”

  1. Thank you for sharing the history of Bo Kaaps. Too often in this day of short attention span and looking for the best shot for Instagram that we forget the people impacted or don’t bother with learning about the area. Great post!

  2. I started writing a similar article about Bo Kaap and the gentrification over the entire area after staying in the area during two trips back home earlier this year. It’s a work in progress that I’ll probably complete after my visit to Cape Town in January when I plan to interview some of the residents who have lived there for generations. You did a great job and I really love your article because it doesn’t only scratch the surface, it puts a face to an increasingly marginalized community. Thank you for your efforts ❤️

  3. The history of Bo Kaap is as colorful as its buildings.

    I’m a Malaysian and it is very fascinating to learn about fellow Malays found in faraway places, considering it took a long time and distance to travel from the Malay Archipelago to Cape Town hundreds of years ago.

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